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Hyacinth holder

The Hyacinth craze

Almost everyone knows about the tulip mania in the seventeenth century, but far less well known is that a century later a veritable craze arose around the hyacinth. The earthenware factories took advantage of this and started producing special pots and holders{containers/planters?} for indoor hyacinth cultivation.
Like the tulip, the hyacinth originally comes from Turkey. We first became acquainted with it in our region around 1560. Initially they were all blue, but soon white varieties were also cultivated and later countless variations in pink and red. The most important growers were located in Haarlem, the centre of the flower bulb trade. In the seventeenth century these growers focused exclusively on the single-flowered hyacinth. Because double-flowered specimens produced no seeds, the growers considered them a dead-end that had to be eradicated.

Consequently, Pieter Voorhelm, owner of the Buyskool nursery, checked his flowerbeds every day for double hyacinths, which –when he noticed one – he ‘strangled’, even before they had fully flowered. But he fell ill and couldn’t do the rounds for a while. As a result, some double hyacinths reached full maturity. Customers who saw these lush flowers were ready and willing to pay for them handsomely. They loved this variety! In 1684 Voorhelm decided to cultivate double hyacinths as well.

Hyacintenbak, circa 1760-1770, porselein, h. 15.5, In bruikleen van Ottema Kingma Stichting

Hyacinth holder, ca. 1760-1770, earthenware, h. 15.5, on loan from the Ottema Kingma Foundation. Click on the image for an enlargement.


Needless to say, his competitors were soon snapping at his heels. Between 1700 and 1720, the Haarlem growers marketed at least 100 different varieties. The hyacinth became more and more popular and the prices of the bulbs rose accordingly. At the beginning of 1729, a long period of severe frost – one could even cross the Zuiderzee by horse and sledge – caused enormous damage to the hyacinth crop. Consequently, many varieties disappeared. And perhaps that was precisely the reason why prices rose astronomically. In 1733, lovers of the Passé non plus ultra hyacinth would have had to pay between 1600 and 1850 guilders for a single bulb (although that did include the cluster of 8 baby bulbs it would produce). As had happened with tulip bulbs exactly a century earlier, prices of hyacinth bulbs skyrocketed, but this speculative madness was likewise short-lived. The bubble burst in 1735 and prices fell to more acceptable levels.
Nevertheless, the hyacinth remained one of the most popular flowers throughout the eighteenth century. A second hyacinth era followed in 1745. This was because Madame de Pompadour had picked the hyacinth as her favourite flower. The famous mistress of Louis XV was a trendsetter in all areas of fashion and what we now call ‘lifestyle’. The French king ordered many hundreds of bulbs for his mistress each year from Haarlem. A surviving invoice confirms that in 1759 he ordered ‘363 Hyacinth bulbs for (flower) beds and 200 for glasses in winter’. In addition to providing insight into the quantities of bulbs ordered, this document also reveals that at that time hyacinths were not only planted in outdoor flowerbeds but also indoors.
Rond 1710 was al bekend dat een hyacintenbol ook zonder aarde tot bloei kon komen, namelijk op een glazen vaas met onderin een laagje water. Uit de nota aan de koning blijkt dat Madame de Pompadour dergelijke It was widely known by around 1710 that a hyacinth bulb could bloom without soil in a glass vase with a layer of water in the bottom. The invoice to the king shows that Madame de Pompadour had such ‘glasses’ her disposal. After 1750, special hyacinth holders made of painted earthenware also appeared on the market. They are elegant and flamboyant, entirely in keeping with contemporary rococo taste. The hyacinth holder in the Princessehof collection is a splendid example. It would certainly not have looked out of place in Madame de Pompadour’s lavish interior.
Most hyacinth holders have a separate grid – also made of earthenware – with a few large round holes for the bulbs and often some small adjacent holes to insert sticks as supports. At a certain point in their growth cycle hyacinths become top heavy and the stems can snap. Most of the holders that have been preserved lack the grid, which was most likely broken through use. This is also the case with this holder. However, the previous owner had a new grid made after an historical example. And rightly so, because nowadays we buy hyacinths in plastic pots (convenience serves humanity), but doesn’t such a richly flowering and deliciously fragrant herald of spring deserve something better?

The hyacinth holder

The hyacinth holder is unmarked, but based on similarities in the shape and decoration of marked objects it is attributed to Johan van Kerckhoff’s factory in Arnhem. This factory only operated for a brief period, from about 1759 to 1770. For just over ten years, the company produced tableware and other utility wares and decorative objects of a high standard, in a style more in keeping with that of foreign producers than that of Delft. This international orientation is not so strange. In addition to Delft craftsmen, the Arnhem factory also employed various modellers and painters from Germany and France. They brought with them knowledge, experience and new ideas about shapes and decorations.

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